The crucifixion account in the Gospel of John is full of glorious irony. In fact, John’s entire narrative, along with the discourses of Jesus, are filled with striking ironies, stark contrasts, and deeper meanings. The story whispers to those who have ears to hear.
By John 19:16, the mockery of Jesus’ hasty trial had come to an end, so Pilate handed him over to be crucified. But the horror, shame, and guilt of crucifixion would be subtly (or not-so-subtly) undermined by a little wooden placard.
Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.'” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written” (John 19:19-22).
It was customary for a criminal facing crucifixion by the Roman regime to be adorned with a placard identifying his wrongdoing, as a not-so-subtle warning to all who might pass by and observe his fate. Upon arrival at the place of crucifixion, the placard was fixed to the cross. The inscription was meant to be instructive. It most certainly was in Jesus’ case — in so many ways.
Jesus was unrighteously murdered under the pretext of a righteous execution because the jealous Jewish leaders hated (among other things) his claim to be the Son of God and the rightful heir to David’s throne. They paraded this charge of sedition before Pilate, knowing that such a royal claim would be as despised before Caesar as it was before their own religious elite. To them, because of their hard hearts and blind eyes, Jesus’ supposed identity was just that — a claim. “So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.'”
But Pilate, a pagan under-ruler trembling beneath the shadow of Caesar and manipulated by his Jewish subjects, sarcastically inscribed the placard with only the words, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”
The inscription was repeated in three languages so that everyone in the area could receive fair warning — in Aramaic for the native Judeans; in Latin for the occupying Roman force; and in Greek for the empire and for the Galileans.1 The Roman soldiers, the Jewish leaders, the Passover pilgrims, and the distant disciples could all read this proclamation. It was essential — wasn’t it? — for everyone to know that Jesus of Nazareth was King of the Jews.
And how was this royal proclamation broadcasted? From where could the random passerby come to know that Jesus of Nazareth was King of the Jews? From the cross.
This is no mere human mistake on the part of Pilate. The Jewish leaders don’t appreciate the lack of clarity, and for the sake of truth in advertising, they request that the inscription be clarified. But Pilate responds with an ironic rebuttal: “What I have written I have written.” Yes, it has been written, and it cannot be changed. Despite all their murderous manipulations, the Jewish leaders were not in control. Even from the cross, the incriminating inscription insinuated what only a few dared believe during those dark hours.
Not even a Roman regime working with religious leaders could stamp out the spark of Jesus’ true identity that radiated dimly from above his thorn-pierced head. On that cross was a king. The condemnation was a coronation.
Above the pooling blood, below the incriminating placard, between the condemned criminals, and outside the gates of the royal city, hung a king.
As Jesus had taught his disciples so many times before, down was the new up. The greatest among you shall be your servant. He who humbles himself will be exalted. He who loses his life will find it. And a grain of wheat will remain alone unless it dies — and bears much fruit.
This was not the first irony. And it will not be the last.
1 D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 610.